Ask Ann:

"Who Is Ann?"

(Ann Houck is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience working with at-risk children in the foster care system and in orphanages. Her childcare approach uses Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a framework for parenting children of trauma, developed at Texas Christian University.)

QUESTION: Ann, what is your background and experience in alternative care? Did you learn anything the hard way?

Anonymous Caregiver

By Ann Houck • 3 min read

Ann answers:

Happy fall, Oak Life Journal readers. I’m thinking it is time to tell you all a little about who I am and what this TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention) is all about. So, bear with me.

I am a licensed (New Mexico, USA), clinical social worker, retired, now living in Old Mexico. My professional career was spent working with foster and adoptive families and children identified with behavioral issues in the public school system. The children in foster/adoptive families were all removed from their biological parents.

Why were they removed?

Usually because of severe abuse and/or neglect on the part of a family member. Occasionally through the death of parent(s), but most often not.

These kiddos came “into care” at various ages; they were children from hard places. They had been through horrible circumstances brought on by someone close to them. Some children came into care at birth, some not until early adolescence.

But all had been severely traumatized and that trauma was reflected in their behavior. Reflected in the eyes of a child from a hard place is fear; our job is to replace that fear with hope, love, courage, safety, trust, peace, etc.

Almost always, when a child comes into alternative care, there is a period referred to as the “honeymoon” period. Foster parents and children are checking each other out. Everyone puts on their Sunday-best behavior.

Never, however, does this period last for any time.

Then the work begins. “Oh, this is not what I wanted my child to be. . . Nobody told me that he would attack the dog and try to kill it. . . I found a week of food stuffed into the air vent in his room. . . She just won’t do what she is told and when I ask the second time, she throws a tantrum. . . I have to lock my door when I go to bed because she attacked me last night.” “Please, social worker, help me. If this continues, I cannot keep this child.”

So, I struggled right along with these families. We worked on relationship problems, we worked on behavior modification techniques, we worked on communication skills, we sent the kids to therapy, we got frustrated. Nothing seemed to work long-term until one day I attended a seminar on TBRI. Wow! The light bulbs went off; this made sense, and there was evidence that the program worked. I was convinced.

Here was a program based on science; the two people who developed the program, Karyn Purvis and David Cross are developmental psychologists who knew their stuff. I was beginning to understand why the behavioral modification interventions were not working. What was lacking in my approach was a consistent, rational program built on trust, developed through connection, correction and empowerment.

I invite you to begin to begin your relationship with the children in your care with safety, predictability, play, love, in short, trust. We know that we will provide a safe, loving, healthy environment but the kids do not know that. It is our job to build the capacity for that knowledge.

Learn to get close emotionally with the kiddos. Play with them; read to them; sing with them; eat with them; sleep close to them; feed them; wash them; be gentle and kind and firm and reliable.

Provide them with structure in which they can grow and flourish. Let them know the rules and that they are expected to follow them. Let them know that you are the “boss” but you will never hurt them. Learn to be the parent that they have not had.

Use the principles that have been developed by Purvis and Cross; be secure in the knowing that their principles work and will work for you and the children in your care.

When you “Ask Ann,” this is the context in which your questions will be answered. I hope that you will find this intervention useful, powerful and empowering. Feel free to ask questions about TBRI as well as behavioral questions regarding your kiddos. We are here for you; you are not alone!  

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

Ann Houck

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

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